This is a candid series on product leaders making an impact across the globe. You can find more stories here.
Nancy Wang is the Head of Data Protection Services (AWS Backup) for Amazon Web Services, where she leads product, engineering, and design teams. Previously, she led the development of the first SaaS product for Rubrik, an enterprise software unicorn. She has built and launched large-scale enterprise systems in storage, data management, and networking. She built platform products at Google (Fiber) as their first woman PM and for the U.S. Intelligence Community in Washington, D.C.
Nancy is on a mission to advance more women into product & engineering roles, having founded Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), a global nonprofit with 16,000+ members and 7 international chapters in 3 continents. AWIP has partnered with some of the biggest names in tech, including Amazon Web Services, Google, VMware, and the Wharton School of Business to deliver award-winning workshops that enable women to attain the right skills and executive mentorship to succeed.
How has working from home been for you?
It’s been exciting! I end up working more. Even before COVID, my engineering team has been distributed — 15 engineers and 1 PM in Vancouver and the rest of the team in Seattle. I used to travel a lot to these places and to our office in Boston. Recently, we had 11 people join my team during COVID and we expect to grow to 60 by the end of this year. I’d say onboarding them has been a bit of a challenge.
Your profile is incredibly interesting! Give us a glimpse into what it was like make pivotal career moves— from being the first female Product Manager at Google to becoming a mentor to several thousands of women in tech.
I abide by my own advice: “Do what’s interesting to you.”
When I was in high school, one of my favorite activities was building wooden airplanes with my father to compete for Science Olympiad competitions. So that required me to understand Bernoulli principle, how airlift works, and things like that. I believe everyone deserves the right to a base level of medical care. Though a lot less experienced in high school, I helped start the volunteer program for my town’s free medical clinic for those who couldn’t afford to pay for medical care. This way the nurses and doctors who are giving their time back to the community could have clerical support or admin support. That interest in science and giving back to the community carried through college and even today. I’m a little squeamish about blood so I decided not to study bioengineering from the get go but rather focus on something that enabled other industries. So Computer Science happened.
How has your combination of degrees opened doors for you?
While at the University of Pennsylvania, I took part in a conference where one of the keynote speeches was given by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Human Services. I learned how academic researchers get involved to improve the overall quality of life and health care delivery models. I was also extended an invitation to join the Federal Government at the US Department of Human Services and the White House to work on health care policy on their health.gov, the largest collection of healthcare data sets in the world. It was a phenomenal experience! I learned how big organizations like the government work, how to build consensus, influence, talking to different groups, writing speeches for the executives and the government. Being able to communicate written documents to leaders is a super important skill as a PM. When I joined Google, Product Management was the best fit given the kind of experience I had gained.
You’ve been a vocal advocate of women of color and immigrants on starting careers in product. What common themes emerge when they seek your help or mentorship?
I think it would be helpful to go back and talk about the time I started AWIP. We are a non-profit organization run by volunteers. So it has to really come from passion, otherwise it’s a LOT of work. On a given week, I probably spend 20 hours of my week on AWIP and another 80 hours on Amazon.
When I started AWIP, I noticed many women were holding themselves back by not having a conversation on promotion or a raise with their boss. They were like “Oh! They’ll just hand it to me when they think I’m ready.”
So once my boss said he’s working on giving me a raise when I had not even asked him because I had already asked him for a promotion. I’m going to be quite honest with you. Not every boss is going to be like that. Unfortunately, the majority of the bosses are not like that. And you can’t pick a boss most of the time right. So you’ve got to control your destiny.
Something that I’ve learned from my mentors that no one’s a better advocate for you than you. I learned very early on that it’s not fair to count on a new boss who has other direct reports to always be thinking about your career or your growth.
I started seeing how very few women are in tech, especially in technical leadership. Look at Wall Street Journal, other articles and publications. Most women are in HR roles, Marketing, or Legal where they don’t have a direct impact on the P&L.
This is what I tell my mentees. If you believe you have the potential to be in C-Suite or as an Executive, at some point, you’ve got to start owning your own P&L. Owning a budget is huge. A part of that allocation is headcount.
For example, I plan allocation of engineers for a project and plan engineers to product manager ratio. Owning a budget builds muscle for a lot of higher order thinking. It’s this higher order thinking that gets you a shot at the C-level.
So those are the themes I’ve seen — women holding themselves back at work, not advocating for themselves and not placing importance on P&L. All three things combined equals lack of advancement.
A lot of people are surprised when they see me say these things on camera. I’m not that old. I just turned 30 and I’ve reached this position at the fastest velocity in my career.
In order to ensure that you continue advancing yourself at the fastest velocity possible, it is up to you to make sure that you have the right sponsors, right experiences and right structure right now. I can help you in your career as your mentor but you need to be driving it on your own wherever you are.
How does AWIP make a difference?
We’ve helped more than 300 women find jobs — higher level jobs, or jobs at big companies or small startups. You name it. During COVID, we’ve had more than 400 people attending our webinars that are focused on core skills that help women advance in their career. For example, we recently had an internal event with Amazon women on best practices of working with engineers. This year we plan to launch an online module of our workshop.
What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you handle it?
I have no shame in sharing this.
When I was starting a career in tech, before I joined Google, I faced 50 rejections either from phone screens, onsites or second rounds. The key for me was to understand how to pick myself up and keep on going. If you clearly know your goals, do not be afraid of it. You might fail, sometimes fail embarrassingly. Once you admit that you can be wrong or right yet fail, you get over it and just keep going on.
Give us one hot tip on salary negotiation.
You should know what you are worth in the company. If you don’t know what you are worth, you should probably not ask for salary negotiation. Do your research. Levels.fyi is a great site. Many of the big companies like the FAANG have different levels that are public. They come with a salary band. So you’d have to understand if you are on top, middle or bottom of that band. Next step is obviously getting promoted to get that band of salary. Talk to peers about it. If you are not in the top band, then think about what deliverables and accomplishments you can advocate for. For example, if your colleague was out sick for maybe a couple months or had family issues and you stepped in for her, and was able to not only deliver your projects, but also her projects. That’s a great example of doing above and beyond!
Have you had a change in view on anything that you held closely to yourself?
So when I was younger, I grew up in a very traditional conservative Wisconsin. I had a different mindset. I thought I can’t become a Director right now because I need 15 years of experience. People do that and lock themselves out.
However, my first management job happened when I was 24 when I directly managed a team of 15 engineers in three different cities. If you had asked me in high school, I’d be like “No way! I’m way too young and there are way more qualified people than me.” I started to let go off my inherent biases.